When the religion of Baha’i is mentioned there are usually two possible responses. The first is for the individual to know someone who is a Baha’i or have heard of the Baha’is but know little or nothing of their beliefs. The second response is to simply never have heard of the faith.
Those who don’t understand it sometimes call Baha’i a cult, and others who are likewise misinformed sometimes call it a form of Islam. It is surprising, almost shocking in a way, to learn that Baha’i considers itself to be the next and fourth great religion in the lineage of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and now Baha’i. It considers its prophets to be in the direct lineage from Abraham, to Moses, to Christ, to Muhammad, to the Bab, to Baha’u’llah.
It is truly a religion in its infancy. Its major prophet died in 1892, only a little over a century ago. But its growth in the twentieth century has been most impressive. It has spread to 218 countries and there are over 116,000 Baha’i Assemblies around the world with over five million members. It is a quiet religion and its expansion is primarily by word of mouth and example rather than overt missionary work.
To gain some understanding of the Baha’i faith it may be best to start with a brief history of its prophets, beginning with the Bab. Born Mirza Ali Muhammad, he assumed the name, the Bab, which means the Gate. He was born in Iran in 1819 and was in the lineage of Muhammad and a devoted Muslim. He followed the teaching of the Qur’an to the letter until at the age of 25, he declared himself a messenger of God (Esslemont 14-5). The validity of this calling was established by eighteen disciples coming to him with no previous knowledge of who he was. These disciples were called Letters of the Living. The Bab adopted titles that equated him with Muhammad and charged his disciples to spread the word of the new prophet (Balyuzi 29-30). His teachings were in line with Islam on most matters. He encouraged brotherly love, education, abstinence from intoxicants, care for the poor, and more freedom for women. At the heart of his message was the pure love for God — a love that was to be so strong as to have no hope for reward nor fear of persecution, and persecution was what they found (Esslemont 21). The teaching of the new prophet spread rapidly and his disciples won converts throughout the region.
One of the basic beliefs of many Muslims was, and is, that Muhammad was the “Seal of the Prophets.” Muhammad was believed to have been the final prophet of God, bringing the perfect teaching of which no more revision would be needed. For the Bab to proclaim that he was a new prophet and equal with Muhammad was seen as heresy by some of the Muslim clerics who had strong influence in the government. The Bab also strongly criticized the Muslim clergy for what he saw as hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty. The persecution of the Babis, as they came to be known, was swift and harsh. Thousands of his followers were killed including all the Letters of the Living, and on the ninth of July 1850, the Bab himself was executed. Another of the teachings of the Bab was that he was just the predecessor to a much greater prophet to follow, one that would unify the world. In some ways the Bab is seen as the John the Baptist of the Baha’is.
An early convert to the teachings of the Bab was Mirza Husayn Ali, the son of a wealthy government minister in Tehran. He had led a privileged life but never attended any formal schools, only receiving tutoring at home as would suit a young man of his class. He became a devoted follower of the teaching of the Bab and developed a penetrating eloquence in teaching and promoting the faith. His high position in the society gave him some immunity to the purges that swept through the Babi community but in 1852 even his connections could not help him. Incensed by the assassination of the Bab two of his followers launched a crude assassination attempt against the ruler of Iran and failed. The government then launched an even harsher attack on the Babis and Mirza Husayn Ali was thrown into a dungeon called the “Dark Pit” with eighty other Babis. He suffered the degradations of the prison but while there had a great revelation as he relates:
While engulfed in tribulations I heard a most wondrous a most sweet voice, calling above My head. Turning My face, I beheld a Maiden — the embodiment of the remembrance of the name of My Lord — suspended in the air before Me. So rejoiced was she in her very soul that her countenance shone with the ornament of the good pleasure of God, and her cheeks glowed with the brightness of the All-Merciful…. [s]he addressed all who are in heaven and all who are on the earth, saying: “By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, and yet ye comprehend not. This is the Beauty of God amongst you, and the power of His sovereignty within you, could ye but understand. This is the Mystery of God and His Treasure, the Cause of God and His glory unto all who are in the kingdoms of Revelation and of creation, if ye be of them that perceive.” (Balyuzi 82-3)
So Mirza Husayn Ali was called upon to be the manifestation of God on earth. He would be known as Baha’u’llah, The Glory of God. He did not divulge the revelation to others at this time. After four months in prison he was released and in 1853 exiled to Baghdad, Iraq, where he was to remain for the next ten years. In Baghdad a conflict grew between himself and his half-brother Mirza Yahya, who had been appointed successor by the Bab and resented Baha’u’llah’s growing influence. The jealousy and conflict proved too much for Baha’u’llah to bear, and he retreated to the seclusion of the caves of Kurdistan where he kept himself in contemplation for two years (Balyuzi 114).
Upon his return to Baghdad he found the Babi community in shambles. He quietly and gradually rebuilt the community and gained followers from all classes in Baghdad. He encouraged only a passive spread of the faith and forbid any forceful or coercive missionary work. He received financial support and many followers made provisions for the faith in their wills. As his influence spread in the community, Muslim clergy grew worried and put pressure on the rulers of the Ottoman Empire that controlled the entire area to move him to Istanbul and remove his influence from the region, which they did. But before Baha’u’llah went to his next exile, he spent twelve days in what is now known as the Garden of Ridvan, paradise, where he unfolded the revelation that he was the promised one of the prophesy of the Bab, the great new prophet of unity (Balyuzi 168).
After a short stay in Istanbul, Baha’u’llah and his followers were transported to the city of Adrianople where he remained for four and a half years. His following there grew and he announced his mission. It was at this time that his followers dropped the name of Babis and adopted the name, Baha’is. But conflict with his half-brother had not been left in Iraq. Mirza Yahya had also been exiled to Adrianople, and he and his followers did everything possible to discredit Baha’u’llah’s and plot his downfall. The conflict reached such a level that the Turkish authorities banished both groups, with Baha’u’llah and his followers going to Akka in Palestine, and Mirza Yahya and his followers to Cyprus (Esslemont 26).
The Egyptians mention Akka’s existence over four thousand years ago and it may be one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the world. The Ottoman Turks had converted the ancient place into a penal colony. The Baha’is were confined in the army barracks where many fell ill and died of malaria and dysentery (Balyuzi 283). It was in Akka that Baha’u’llah’s eldest son, Abdu’l-Baha, began playing a more important role in the faith. He assumed a leadership position and gained the respect of the people of Akka and the authorities. The Baha’is were eventually moved out of the barracks and allowed to live in the surrounding city where many established businesses. In 1879 Abdu’l-Baha rented and later purchased a mansion outside Akka at the foot of Mount Carmel. It was there Baha’u’llah lived his final years in comfort. Abdu’l-Baha handled all practical matters of the family and faith and filtered all visitors to his father, who had by this time become very well known throughout the region. On May 29, 1892, Baha’u’llah died at the age of seventy-five. In his last will and testament he appointed Abdu’l-Baha his successor and interpreter of his teachings (Balyuzi 420).
After Baha’u’llah’s death there were yet more inter-family conflicts and charges were raised by family members against Abdu’l- Baha, which led Turkish officials to again confine him and his family within the walls of Akka (Esslemont 55). In 1908 the rebellion of the Young Turks freed all political prisoners, so Abdu’l-Baha gained his liberty. He traveled extensively to Europe and the United States and firmly planted the seeds of the Baha’i faith where they grew and spread world-wide.
While in the previous teaching of the religions of Abraham the voices of the prophets are always filtered through other voices after centuries have passed between the preaching of the prophet and the documentation of his words. With Baha’u’llah the words of the prophet have been preserved in the hand of the prophet himself. There is no conflict about what he “really” said. Baha’u’llah’s writings are prolific. He wrote over one hundred books in his life on topics including the history of religion, morality, ethics, spirituality, economics, social organization, human rights, jurisprudence, the arts, metaphysics, science, mysticism, and prophecy (Shepperd 36). These writings provide a large and firm foundation for the faith of the Baha’is that goes far beyond religious guidance to all areas of human endeavor. Shoghi Effendi has summarized the basic principles of the Baha’i Faith as follows:
The Baha’i faith recognizes the unity of God and His Prophets, upholds the principle of an unfettered search after the truth, condemns all forms of superstition and prejudice, teaches that the fundamental purpose of religion is to promote concord and harmony, that it must go hand-in-hand with science, and that it constitutes the sole and ultimate basis of a peaceful, an ordered and progressive society. It inculcates the principle of equal opportunity, rights and privileges for both sexes, advocates compulsory education, abolishes extremes of poverty and wealth, exalts work performed in the spirit of service to the rank of worship, recommends the adoption of an auxiliary international language, and provides the necessary agencies for the establishment and safeguarding of a permanent and universal peace. (Hatcher 85)
The primary Baha’i principle of unity is one that identifies the Baha’i Faith as a truly modern development. It is the first major religion that developed in a time when it was possible to gain a realistic global perspective, and with that range of vision, sees itself as a tool to unify all the peoples of the world through a religious structure. This sense of unity is poetically expressed in one of Baha’u’llah’s most famous books The Hidden Words:
O CHILDREN OF MEN!
Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory. (20)
This sense of unity permeates all Baha’i teachings. It is not simply a philosophical premise but also the basis of many of the practical applications of the faith. The Baha’is promote a general system of weights and measurements, an international currency, a universal auxiliary language, and an effective international tribunal. While promoting this sense of global unity the Baha’is are careful to not threaten national sovereignty. They are well aware that the system of nations is deeply rooted in humankind and that the kind of unity they promote would not replace this system, but form a loose confederation of the national structures. They are equally careful to guard the rights of individuals. They believe the philosophy they promote would foster cultural identity and the rights of the individual; it would not promote uniformity but spiritual unity (Sheppard 74). With the Baha’i extreme emphasis on unity it is important recognize that individualism is also a highly prized quality. The Baha’i believe that each person, culture, and nation has unique aspects that need not be blended but rather exalted to make life more interesting and progress possible under the umbrella of the spiritual and political unity the Baha’i envision.
One of the main vehicles to promote this unity is through their conviction that all religion is actually based on the belief in the same God. Again from the words of Baha’u’llah:
There is no distinction whatsoever among the Bearers of My Message. They all have but one purpose; their secret is the same secret. To prefer one in honor to another, to exalt certain ones above the rest, is in no way wise to be permitted. Every true Prophet hath regarded His message fundamentally the same as the Revelation of every other Prophet gone before Him. (GWB 78)
This belief is at the root of what the Baha’is call “progressive revelation.” It is believed that about every thousand years God sends a messenger or manifestation to bring his word and truth to the people. These major messengers have included Abraham, Moses, Christ, Muhammad, and now Baha’u’llah. As mentioned previously the primary conflict between the Baha’is and Muslims is that Muhammad was described in the Qur’an to be the “Seal of the Prophets.” The Baha’is actually agree with that interpretation in that they see Muhammad as the conclusion of what they call the Prophetic Era, and Baha’u’llah as the beginning of a modern era of revelation that is free of obscure ritual and symbolism, one that deals with unity of humankind on a global scale (Holley 218). While they see Baha’u’llah as a renewal of revelation of the past they also see him as the first of the prophets for a new age, the age of fulfillment for humankind. They also believe that in approximately one thousand years another manifestation of God will be shown to man to guide humankind in a new era. Contemporary, flexible Baha’i interpretation of progressive revelation also sees the Buddha, Krishna, and tribal religions as having their foundation with the same God as the Baha’i and the tradition of Abraham.
As part of the modernization of religion, the Baha’i faith believes that true science and true religion are always in harmony. They believe that science and religion simply have different ways of describing the same phenomena. They believe, as many scientists, that the essential nature of God is beyond all comprehension (Esslemont 201). They believe that the universe is without beginning or end; that worlds and systems will come and go; that all matter is eternal and will take different forms at different times; that nothing is ever lost or gained but manifest in the new from the old (Esslemont 204).
Baha’is believe that the major force promoting spiritual unity is universal education. As put by Baha’u’llah:
Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone. The knowledge of such sciences, however, should be acquired as can profit the people of the earth, and not those which begin with words and end with words. (ESW 26)
Education is seen as a guide to a new and enlightened way of life. Horace Holley expresses the power of education as follows: “Education alone can overcome the inertia of our separateness, transmute our creative energies for the realization of world unity, free the mind from its servitude to the past and reshape civilization to be the guardian of our spiritual and physical resources (126).” Yet as expressed in the previous quote by Baha’u’llah that education needs to be selective. That education to be pursued should be productive education and that which furthers humankind. In the Baha’i faith the teacher is seen as the position to which a person can aspire (Esslemont 150).
In the realm of economics a leveling of the wide gap between the rich and the poor is deemed mandatory — not through a system of socialism or mandated means but through religious conviction. The dominance of materialism in modern life is condemned by the words of Abdu’l-Baha:
Some men’s lives are solely occupied with the things of this world; their minds are so circumscribed by exteriors manners and traditional interests that they are blind to any other realm of existence, to the spiritual significance of all things! They think and dream of earthly fame, of material progress. Sensuous delights and comfortable surroundings bound their horizon, their highest ambitions center in successes of worldly conditions and circumstances! They curb not their lower propensities; they eat, drink, and sleep! Like an animal, they have no thought beyond their own physical well-being. It is true that these necessities must be dispatched. Life is a load which must be carried on while we are on earth, but the cares of the lower things of life should not be allowed to monopolize all the thoughts and aspirations of the human being. The heart’s ambitions should ascend to a more glorious goal, mental activity should rise to higher levels! Men should hold their souls in vision of celestial perfection, and there prepare a dwelling-place for the inexhaustible bounty of the Divine Spirit. (LDI 67-8)
The Baha’is maintain that an equitable economic system will develop when a new spiritual understanding unites people. Each person has talents and capabilities to add to the well being of all. A just society will find the means to develop those potentialities and make every person a benefit to themselves and the world (Esslemont 140). Horace Holley sees contemporary life doing the opposite of this by making each person an island unto themselves:
The profit motive alone will not sustain a balanced, enduring civilization. Far stronger, far truer — in fact, far more humanly natural — is the motive of self-expression and fulfillment found in children and surviving in the few artists, artisans and spiritually conscious men and women who refuse to be molded by the external forces prevailing in their environment. The inadequacy of the profit motive appears when we imagine the result if it extended to family life. Every family is a cooperative economy attempting to maintain itself in a competitive community. The dissolution of the family marks the end of an age. At present education is limited to the aim of assuring personal survival in a competitive society, and the effect of this mental and moral strangulation is to leave the essential core of personality —its understanding of fundamental purpose and its motives –to the overwhelming influence of an already perverted society. As the expression of a collective social mentality, education can and must deal with basic human values.
Holley has said that “when the lights of religion darken the materialists appear” (122). It follows that when the lights of religion brighten, the materialists will decline. That is what the Baha’i see as the influence of their religion on our economic future.
As practical guidance to how a person should live, the Baha’i teaching provide an abundance of instruction, the most important coming from the primary source, Baha’u’llah:
Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity. Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face. Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answer to the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge. Be fair in thy judgment, and guarded in thy speech. Be unjust to no man, and show all meekness to all men. Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression. Let integrity and uprightness distinguish all thine acts. Be a home for the stranger, a balm to the suffering, a tower of strength for the fugitive. Be eyes to the blind, and a guiding light unto the feet of the erring. Be an ornament to the countenance of truth, a crown to the brow of fidelity, a pillar of the temple of righteousness, a breath of life to the body of mankind, an ensign of the hosts of justice, a luminary above the horizon of virtue, a dew to the soil of the human heart, an ark on the ocean of knowledge, a sun in the heaven of bounty, a gem on the diadem of wisdom, a shining light in the firmament of thy generation, a fruit upon the tree of humility. We pray God to protect thee from the heat of jealousy and the cold of hatred. (ESW 93)
Other obligations of a Baha’i include the following: to make daily prayers and to read from the Sacred Writings daily; to observe an annual nineteen-day fast period from sunrise to sunset; to refrain from gambling, extramarital sex, and intoxicants; to practice monogamy and gain the permission of parents before marriage; to observe a one year waiting period before divorce; to avoid all forms of prejudice; to obey the civil government; to prohibit any form of clergy in the Faith; to be of service to humankind; and to not find fault in others.
The Baha’i concept of the soul and the afterlife are also modernized to fit a more contemporary lifestyle. Our brief lives are seen as enough time to gain the spiritual tools to carry on into the next life; there is no rebirth, as there is no need for one. Our body is but a shell for the soul to develop within during this earthly life; when the development is done it is discarded. The soul is the ultimate reality that continues an endless development, not only here on earth but also in the afterlife, which is also a series of steps of development toward greater perfection, the progress never stops. As it is impossible to know the true nature of God, so it is impossible to know the state of the afterlife. Baha’u’llah has attempted to give some idea of the extent of the difference: “The world beyond is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother” (GWB 157). The soul is nurtured in this life by prayer, obedience to God, and service to humanity (Sheppard 60). The Baha’is generally hold no concept of hell other than hell being the absence of God in one’s life. Similarly, evil is the absence of good; the gloomy vacuum in people’s souls without God is what might be labeled as evil (Holley 212).
As with all the religions of Abraham, the Baha’is started a new calendar beginning with their era. The Baha’i year begins on the equinox, the first day of Spring. It consists of nineteen months of nineteen days, the final month of the year being the fast month. The first day of each month is a feast day and a day of gathering for Baha’is for worship and fellowship. These Baha’i assemblies are the core of Baha’i social organization and are groups of people who join together for friendship and consultation. There is no clergy, as any type of clergy was expressly forbidden by Baha’u’llah; instead each member has the right of equal participation. A nine member administrative group is elected by each assembly to guide the gathering. Horace Holley has written: “Every Baha’i assembly is a world in miniature, containing the differences and personal problems of the world…. This is our glory, our privilege, our attainment, our distinction, not our weakness, not our shame” (240). These local assemblies elect representatives to the National Baha’i Assembly. The national assemblies send representatives to an international convention every five years that elect individuals to the Universal House of Justice which is now the supreme administrative body of the Baha’i faith (Sheppard 79).
When Abdu’l-Baha died in 1921, he appointed his grandson, Shoghi Effendi as his successor and interpreter of the teaching of Baha’u’llah. Shoghi Effendi was given the title of Guardian of the Cause and gave thirty-six years of service to the spread of the faith and interpretation of the teachings of Baha’u’llah in many languages throughout the world. It was his dedication that led to the remarkable global spread of the faith in the twentieth century. Before his death in 1957, Shoghi Effendi appointed twenty-seven Hands of the Cause of God who were charged with carrying on and protecting the Baha’i faith. They worked on building a system that led to the first Universal House of Justice in 1963. The Universal House of Justice is located at the Baha’i World Center on Mount Carmel, now in Israel. This site also is home to the tombs of Baha’u’llah and the Bab and is the site of pilgrimage for members of the Baha’i faith from around the world.
While the Baha’i faith is certainly modern in many aspects of its structure and faith, it is still firmly grounded in the tradition of the religions of Abraham. It is a faith built on the foundation of a patriarchal godhead who is to be feared. As clearly stated by Baha’u’llah: “The essence of wisdom is the fear of God, the dread of His scourge and punishment, and the apprehension of His justice and decree” (TOB 156).
Baha’u’llah’s attitude toward man and his position in the world is also one that has its roots at the core of the Judeo- Christian-Islamic tradition:
Man, the noblest and most perfect of all created things, excelleth them in all the intensity of this revelation, and is a fuller expression of its glory. And of all men, the most accomplished, the most distinguished, and the most excellent are the Manifestations of the Sun of Truth. (GWB 179)
This positioning of man at the pinnacle of creation and seeing the rest of the world as his resource is still at the basis of Baha’i thinking. And to use the word “man” might still be accurate as well. Even with a basic principle of the Baha’i Faith established as the equality of men and women, and the undoubted improvement of the place of women over the teaching of the previous religions of Abraham, still, women are excluded from serving on the highest administrative body of the Baha’i Faith, the Universal House of Justice.
From the viewpoint of modern society, drenched in cynicism and pessimism, the principles of the Baha’i Faith are idealistic and naive. Their vision of a world unified through spiritual goodness seems a virtual impossibility when seen through the distorted lens of news media most of us receive daily. How could a world be unified that appears to be breaking apart at the seams more with each new conflict and war? But if one steps back and tries to view the world from a longer perspective rather than the short and often near-sighted view of the entertainment/news, a different picture beings to take shape. There has been a great deal of unifying taking place in the twentieth century. Certainly on the economic level it has been remarkable, with a global economy a reality that all must deal with. On the political level, once the dust settles from the collapse of the superpowers, a considerable unifying will have taken place as well. In recent decades the United Nations’ responsibilities and expectations have been growing at a very rapid rate, but it is yet to be seen if the nations of the world will give this particular organization enough power to make it truly effective. Baha’u’llah’s nineteenth century vision of a humanity united in a commonwealth with personal freedoms guaranteed and a world legislature that could create laws that would satisfy the needs of people globally is not so far-fetched, especially if viewed from a visionary twenty-first century vantage point. The people of the Baha’i counsel patience. As Shoghi Effendi has put it:
Our … duty, however confused the scene, however dismal the present outlook, however circumscribed the resources we dispose of, [is] to labor serenely, confidently and unremittingly to lend our share of assistance, in whichever way circumstances may enable us, to the operation of the forces which, as marshaled and directed by Baha’u’llah, are leading humanity out of the valley of misery and shame to the summits of power and glory. (36)
Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of Wolf. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1941, 1988. (Referred to as ESW.)
Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1952, 1983. (Referred to as GWB.)
Baha’u’llah, Hidden Words. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1939, 1994. (Referred to as HW.)
Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1978, 1988. (Referred to as TOB.)
Balyuzi, H. H., Baha’u’llah: The King of Glory. Oxford: George Ronald, second revised edition, 1991.
Effendi, Shoghi, Selected Writings of Shoghi Effendi. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1942, 1975.
Esslemont, J. E., Baha’u’llah and the New Era. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1980.
Hayes, Terril, et. al. (compiled by), Life, Death, and Immortality. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1994. (Referred to as LDI.)
Hatcher, William S., and J. Douglas Martin, The Baha’i Faith: The Emerging Global Religion, San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1984
Holley, Horace, Religion for Mankind. Oxford: George Ronald, 1956.
Sheppard, Joseph, The Elements of the Baha’i Faith. Rockport, Massachusetts: Elements, Inc., 1992
1995 copyright Mark W. McGinnis
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